The Treatment of Erectile Dysfunction in Patients With Neurogenic Disease

Anand N. Shridharani; William O. Brant

Disclosures

Transl Androl Urol. 2016;5(1):88-101. 

In This Article

Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology of Erection

A comprehensive understanding of the neural pathways for erection is necessary for assessing whether neurogenic ED exists and how to appropriately address the ED. As stated previously, neurologic disease may affect multiple neural pathways leading to ED, sensation deficits and ejaculatory dysfunction.

Peripheral Pathways

Nerves originating in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia innervate the penis. There are autonomic (parasympathetic and sympathetic), and somatic separate and integrated pathways. The autonomic pathways neurons originate in the spinal cord and peripheral ganglia from the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, respectively. They merge to form the cavernous nerves that travel alongside the prostate, enter the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum to affect the neurovascular events required for tumescence and detumescence. The somatic nerves send sensory information from the penile skin, glans, and urethra via the dorsal penile nerve and pudendal nerve to the spinal cord. The somatic nerves also initiate contraction of the ischio- and bulbocavernosus muscles.

The sympathetic pathway originates from the 11th thoracic to the 2nd lumbar spinal segments and goes via the white rami to enter the sympathetic chain ganglia. Subsequently nerves travel through the lumbar splanchnic to inferior mesenteric and superior hypogastric nerves to the pelvic plexus. The T10 through T12 segments are most often the origin of sympathetic fibers, and the sympathetic chain ganglia that innervate the penis are located in the sacral and caudal ganglia.[3]

Parasympathetic pathways originate from the intermediolateral cell columns of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sacral spinal cord segments. Preganglionic fibers pass through the pelvic plexus where they coalesce with sympathetic fibers from the superior hypogastric plexus. The cavernous nerves that innervate the penis arise from the portion of the pelvic plexus. The pelvic plexus also contains nerves that innervate the rectum, bladder and urinary sphincter and the nerve projections can be damaged during radical excision of the bladder, prostate and rectum, leading to iatrogenic ED.[4]

Induction of erection occurs after stimulation of the cavernous and pelvic nerve plexus. Conversely, stimulation of the sympathetic trunk leads to detumescence. The reflex erectile response requires that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. Tactile and sensory signals are received by the somatic sensory pathways and integrate with parasympathetic nuclei within the sacral spinal cord (S2–4) leading to induction of erection via cholinergic signaling. These reflexogenic erections remain intact with upper motor neuron injuries. Psychogenic erections do not require that the sacral reflex arc remain intact. In a cat models, spinal cord removal below L4/L5 led to absence of a reflexogenic erection but stimulation of the medial preoptic area (MPOA) or placement near a female cat in heat led to erection.[5,6] Psychogenic erections occur via induction of central pathways traveling from the brain through the sympathetic chain. Non-penile sensory pathways induced by sight, sound, touch and smell travel through the MPOA to the erection centers within the cord T11-L2, and S2-S4 to induce erections.[7] When a sacral lower motor neuron injury is present in men, below T12 these types of erections are more likely to occur.[8] Spinal cord lesions above T9 are not associated with psychogenic erections.[9] Rigidity of erections is less with psychogenic erections because the thoracolumbar sympathetic outflow may contain a decreased concentration of neurons compared to the parasympathetic outflow from the sacral spinal cord.

Somatic Pathways

The somatosensory pathways for erections originate in the penile skin, glans and urethra. Glans afferent sensory free nerve endings are 10-fold more than their corpuscular receptors, and are derived from A δ and unmyelinated C fibers. The nerve endings coalesce to form the dorsal penile nerve along with other sensory nerve fibers. Through the pudendal nerve they enter the S2–4 nerve roots to terminate on spinal neurons and interneurons. The dorsal nerve is not purely somatic, however. Nerve bundles within the dorsal nerve contain nitric oxide (NO) synthase, found typically in autonomic nerves, and stimulation of the sympathetic chain can leak to evoked potentials from the dorsal nerve and vice versa.[10–12]

Somatomotor penile innervation originates in Onuf's nucleus in the S2–4 spinal segments. These nerves travel to the ischiocavernosus and bulbocavernosus muscles when activated lead to contraction necessary for the rigid-erection phase. Several animal studies show that stimulation of the somatomotor pathways may also be under sympathetic control, and adrenergic stimulation may lead to contraction of these muscles during ejaculation.[13,14] Somatomotor spinal reflexes may also be initiated by genital stimulation. For instance, the well-known bulbocavernosus reflex is evidence this reflex exists; however the clinical significance of its absence in the neurological assessment of ED has not been substantiated.[15]

Supraspinal Centers and Pathways

Erections are initiated and maintained via integration of afferent inputs in the supra sacral regions of the central nervous system. Regions of the brain cited to have key roles in the integration of signals include the medial amygdala, MPOA, periaqueductal gray matter, paraventricular nucleus (PVN), and ventral tegmentum among others.[16] Studies in animal models, particularly in rats, have been paramount in identifying these key areas of signal integration and control. Electrostimulation of the MPOA, PVN and hippocampus lead to erection and lesions in these areas may prevent erection.[17] Marson et al. injected labeled pseudorabies virus into rat corpora cavernosa and traced them to neurons in the spinal cord, brain stem and hypothalamus.[18] Stimulation of the rat dorsal nerve led to increased firing in the MPOA not found elsewhere.[19] Axonal tracing in animals have shows direct projections from the hypothalamus to the lumbosacral autonomic erection centers. Oxytocin and vasopressin have been identified as central neurotransmitters within the hypothalamic nuclei and may have a role in penile erection.[17] These signaling studies identifying key areas of erectile response integration may explain how ED is associated with cerebrovascular accident (CVA), Parkinson's, epilepsy and MS.

The supraspinal pathways are likely activated via central neural activation during sexual arousal.

Positron emission tomorgraphy (PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have led to a greater understanding to which center are activated during arousal. These imaging studies measure increases in cerebral blood flow or changes in cerebral activity on a real-time basis. Studies are performed when male subject are aroused by visual cues (usually sexual explicit photos or videos) and compared to images obtained during exposure to sexually neutral cues differences can be measured. Several studies have identified that the inferior frontal lobes, inferior temporal lobes and insular gyrus, and occipital lobes are involved with processing arousal cues, although each are likely to process different stimuli.[20–23]

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